Archive for September, 2009

Points of View in Swann’s Way

September 30, 2009

The narrative point of view of Search is complex and I always am aware when it shifts. For the most part the POV is that of Marcel, the protagonist. The Narrator, the older Marcel who is writing this account, occassionally speaks in his own voice, most famously in the opening passages leading to the madeline scene. But for the most part the Narrator lets the young Marcel speak in the voice appropriate to his age and understanding.

I just finished re-reading Swann’s Way and was struck by the closing passage, which mirrors the volume’s opening. The narrative POV slides from Marcel to the Narrator. Marcel had been describing walks in the Bois where he sought out Odette Swann. With no other transition, we read:

The complexity of the Bois de Boulogne which makes it an artificial place and, in the zoological or mythological sense of the word, a Garden, came to me again this year as I crossed it on my way to Trianon… (I,598).

We know from Time Regained that the Narrator begins writing his autobiography–for that is the form of this novel–after the final dinner party scene where he has his aesthetic epiphanies. So the Narrator’s walk in the Bois must be after the dinner party scene, on the reasonable assumption that it has taken at least a year to write Swann’s Way.  This is, chronologically, the last scene in the entire novel! A narrative written on a moebius strip.

The form of this closing passage is closely related to that of the opening passage, although much shorter. While experiencing the beauty of the park, he has a sort of “madeline” moment:

One sensed that the Bois was not only a wood, that it existed for a purpose alien to the life of its trees; the exhilaration that I felt was due not only to admiration of the autumn tints but to an obscure desire–wellsping of a joy which the heart feels at first without being conscious of its cause, without understanding that it results from no external impulse. (I,601)

He then begins to understand that the source of this exhilaration is the memory of the beauty of the women and their carriages as he saw them as a young man. He contrasts these memories to his present view:

Alas! there was nothing now but motor-cars driven each by a moustached mechanic, with a tall footman towering by his side. (I,603)

I believe that Proust is in a sense justifying the story he is about to tell in the middle volumes of the novel. He wants us to anticipate the beauty and wonder of these years and encourage us to read on.



Idolatry of Painting

September 7, 2009

Swann in Love fits in curiously with the remainder of Search.It has an omniscient narrator, an ‘as related to’ kind of voice, even though Proust adds a line to say he heard Swann’slove story later in life. It interrupts the unfolding of Marcel’s coming of age story, pushing the narrative back a generation to the time around Marcel’s birth. We do get introduced to some of the main characters in the following volumes, besides Swann himself: Mme Verdurin, Elstir, Princess des Laumes, etc. And the love story is a forecast of the Albertine affair (Albertine had not been envisaged when Proust wrote Swann’s Way;I wonder if she had been how he would have handled Swann.) The narrator, at the end ofCombray, says that Swann’s story, like the madeline, served as an aide memoire to his childhood:

Thus would I often lie until morning, dreaming of the old days at Combray, of my melancholy and wakeful evenings there, of other days besides, the memory of  which had been more recently restored to me by the taste–by what would have been called at Combray the “perfume”–of a cup of tea, and, by an association of memories, of a story which, many years after I had left the little place, had been told me of a love affair in which Swann had been involved before I was born… (I, 262)

But the strongest claim for the inclusion of the Swann episode comes a little later, when the narrator injects his personal voice, “…when I began to take an interest in his character because of the similarities which, in wholly different respects, it offered to my own…” (I, 273). All this by way of introduction to my theme: Swann is Marcel’s spiritual alter ego in his understanding of art (and love). By looking at Swann’s view of painting, we see what Marcel must overcome. The following passages show how Swann’s vision and understanding become clouded in part because of his, to use Roger Shattuck’s term, art idolatry.

Swann is not initially attracted to Odette’s physical beauty, until one day he notices a similarity she has to a figure in Botticelli’s The Trials of Moses.

…she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescos. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the old masters not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalization, the individual features of men and women when he knew…. He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette’s face on the doubtful quality of her cheeks and purely fleshy softness which he supposed would greet his lips there should he ever hazard a kiss, but regarded it rather as a skein of beautiful, delicate lines which his eyes unravelled…(I, 315)

Now hear Swann at the end of Swann in Love:

Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn feature, her tired eyes…”To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” (I, 543)

Swann’s idealization of art keeps him from living incitefully, with disastrous results. Marcel’s idealization of literature is a translation of this idea into literature; he cannot possible write the ethereal prose that he imagines literature requires.

On the other hand, Swann’s depiction of Odette as Zipporah is brilliant. Proust simply worked from Botticelli to create Odette’s face. I normally am hesitant to have a novelistic image locked into a single form by, as in this case, a painting or by a reading by an actor. But I concede here that the Botticelli image is much better than what I had imagined prior to seeing it in detail.


Paintings in Proust

September 5, 2009

Paintings in Proust

Eric Karpeles, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

He can describe a scene by describing one after another the innumerable objects which at a given moment were present at a particular place, but truth will be attained by him only when he takes two different objects, state the connexion between them–a connexion analogous in the world of art to the  unique connexion which in the world of science is provided by the law of causality–and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth–and life too-can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the contingencies of time, within a metaphor. (VI, 290)

Metaphor is the strongest and most ubiquitous stylistic device for Proust. Virtually every paragraph contains a striking metaphor. Proust is particularly fond of a particular type of metaphor, that of linking a sensation to a painting or painter. I have not studied art history at any great depth, so a reference like the following would be wasted on me:

But on the other hand when he (Dostoevsky)wants ‘ideas for paintings’ they’re always stupid and would at best result in the pictures where Munkacsy wanted to see a condemned man represeted at the moment when…etc, or the Virgin Mary at the moment when…etc. (V, 509)

I would never interrupt my reading to Google Munkacy, so I satisfy myself with understanding the idea being represented and read on. But I am missing a lot. Eric Karpeles has catalogued every painting and painter mentioned in the novel, and the number is huge: 103 painters and around 183 individual paintings alter pieces (some of the included paintings are representational of the painter and not actually identified by Proust). Each painting is reproduced a page by itself and on the facing page is a sentence or two describing the context, followed by the passage in Search that cites the painting. I will leave a close examination of Proust’s tastes in art to an art historian. I do have some general observations.

Among the artists with the most paintings cited are the great Renaissance masters: Botticelli (6), Carpaccio (8), Giotto (9), Leonardo (4), Mantegna (5), Titian (6). Also well represented are Rembrandt (8) and Vermeer (3). (I am counting only images; many of these artists are cited in Search without referring to particular paintings, as with Vermeer.)

Of the 19th century painters most cited are Manet (6), Monet (2), Renoir (5) and, above all, Whistler (8) (the fictional painter Elstir appears to be a near anagram of Whistler). The towering post-impressionists and modernists like Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse are not mentioned.

We are left with the impression that Proust had exquisite but rather conservative tastes in painting. I remember being struck when I first read Search that Proust rarely mentioned contemporary painters, an odd fact given the creative explosion that began around the time he began writing the novel, particularly the Fauvists and Cubists. Perhaps this was due to Proust’s failing health and inability to visit exhibitions and to his single-minded pursuit of his novel. He never read Joyce, either, perhaps for the same reasons.

I will follow this up with a post on Botticelli, Odette and idolatry.

The Lady in Pink

September 4, 2009

The Lady in Pink presents a problem to the reader. She is a courtesan that Marcel meets when visiting his uncle Adolphe.  She is evidently Odette de Crecy, given the references back to this scene later in the novel. Yet she cannot be Mme de Crecy but must be, instead, Mme Swann. But Mme Swann is at this point in the novel intent on building her salon and gaining acceptability in Swann’s circles. Further, Odette and uncle Adolphe had ruptured their relationship prior to this scene taking place. How can these contradictions be explained?

Our first knowledge of Madame Swannis near the beginning of the goodnight kiss episode and anticipates Odette’s questionable reputation: “For many years, during the course of which–especially before his marriage–M. Swann came often to see them at Combray…” (I,18). Soon after, Marcel’s mother resolves to talk to Swann about his daughter: “My mother fancied that a word from her would wipe out all the distress which my family had contrived to cause Swann since his marriage….’Now, M. Swann,’ she said, ‘do tell me about your daughter….;'” (I,30). So we know that by this point in the very young Marcel’s life Swann is married to the woman we will later know is Odette and that he is the father of their daughter.

Marcel in his younger years would visit his uncle Adolph’s sitting room in Combray. “But for some years now I had not gone into my uncle Adolphe’s sanctum, for he no longer came to Combray on account of a quarrel which had arisen between him and my family, through my fault, in the following circumstances…” (I,99).  In Paris Marcel would, once or twice a month, walk to his uncle’s apartment for a visit. Once, not on the usual visiting day, he arrived to discover his uncle with a visitor. Adolphe reluctantly allows Marcel to enter, at the entreaty of his female guest, where he sees “opposite him, in pink silk dress with a great necklace of pearls about her throat…” (I,104). Nothing in this passage explicitly identifies the lady as Odette, but the connection is made explicit later. In the final volume, Marcel attends a dinner party where he discovers that Odette has become the mistress of Duc de Guermantes. “…in spite of all that she had accomplished in building up a social position, she was tending under pressure of new circumstances to become once more, as she had first appeared to me in my earliest childhood, the lady in pink.” (VI,481).

The relationship of the lady in pink to Marcel’s uncle Adolphe is curious in another respect. We are re-introduced to Odette and Adolphe in Swann in Love.

My uncle advised Swann not to see Odette for some days, after which she would love him all the more, and advised Odette to let Swann meet her whenever and as often as he pleased. A few days later Odette told Swannthat she had just had a rude awakening, on discovering that my uncle was the same as other men: he had tried to take her by force. She calmed Swann down when he wanted to rush out to challenge my uncle to a duel… (I,444)

So we are left with two jarring incongruities. The Lady in Pink scene follows, chronologically, a break between Odette and Adolphe. And the Lady in Pink must already be Mme Swann, who is horrified of revelations of her courtesan past and quite unlikely to continue to have been one.

The break between Odette and Adolphe could conceivably be repaired, although we are not made aware of this. The Mme de Crecy vs Mme Swann is a harder conflict to resolve. Proust is known to have been occasionally sloppy in composition,notably in Time Regained where several discrepancies are found in the concluding soiree scene. These were most likely due to rushed editing near the end of his life. My own suspicion is that Proust wanted the protagonist to have seen Odette as a courtesan so that he can complete the circle of her as a courtesan in the final volume. This formal point of construction was simply so uppermost in his mind that he was probably not aware of the contradiction he had created.